Arvo Pärt's Organ Music

By Shenton, Andrew | The American Organist, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Arvo Pärt's Organ Music


Shenton, Andrew, The American Organist


"I could compare my music to white light, which contains all colors. Only a prism can divide the colors and make them appear; this prism could be the spirit of the listener."1

THE ESTONIAN COMPOSER Arvo Part celebrated his 75th birthday on September 11, 2010. He is arguably one of the best-known living composers, whose signature style has garnered him numerous honors and awards, including election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His discography numbers more than 40 recordings, with many popular works such as Passio having been recorded several times. In February 2007, the Best Choral Performance Grammy was awarded to the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, for Da Pacem (Harmonía Mundi). Part's music has been used in dozens of movies, including several blockbusters-among them There Will Be Blood (2007, Paul Thomas Anderson) and Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004, Michael Moore). Recently, Part was described as "one of the most original voices of our time" in a tribute that helped him win the 2008 Léonie Sonning Music Prize.

Biography

Part studied composition at the Tallinn Conservatory in Estonia, after which he became a recording engineer with Estonian Radio. During his early career, he wrote music for the stage and film, and although he had little access to contemporary trends in Western music, he was often at the forefront of the use of new techniques in works such as Nekrolog of 1960, which was the first composition by an Estonian composer to employ serial technique (a compositional process in which the twelve tones in a scale are manipulated mathematically as well as musically). He continued with serialismi through the mid-1960s, after which he began to make use of collage technique (in which a piece is composed using a variety of techniques and employing both original and borrowed material), in works such as Collage on B-A-C-H (1960). This technique is used to particularly good effect in his Credo of 1968, which uses Bach's famous Prelude in C from the WellTempered Clavier alongside newly composed material. This piece caused a controversy and was banned in the USSR because its affirmation of the Christian faith was viewed as an attack on the Soviet regime.

Pärt has occasionally engaged in periods of contemplative silence. The most significant of these ended in 1976, after which his music was transformed. His subsequent compositions use an innovative technique he devised called "tintinnabuli. " When asked about this new style, Part declared:

I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me. I work with very few elements - with one voice, with two voices. I build with the most primitive materials - with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation.2

In 1977, he composed three works using this new technique that remain among his best-loved: Fratres, Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, and Tabula Rasa. He immigrated in 1980, eventually settling in Berlin with his wife, Nora, and their two sons, before returning to Estonia, where he now lives. The creative period after the immigration includes many settings of religious texts, often in Latin, and many of them on a large scale: Passio (1982), Te Deum (1984-86, rev. 1993), and Litany (1994), among others. Smaller-scale works such as the Magnificat (1989) and The Beatitudes (1990) have become standard repertoire for choirs all over the world.

Tintinnabuli

During the period 1968-76, Part spent time studying early music, chant, and reading Dante and other writers. He also became fascinated with the sound of bells. The first piece that embodies the principles of the new tintinnabuli technique is a short piano piece called Für Alina. First performed in a concert in 1976, along with six other works that introduced the new style, the piece remains one of Part's most popular works.

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